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from issue no. 10 - 2006

An interview with one of the most authoritative leaders of the Shiite community

The “golden path” of dialogue

A meeting with the Iranian Ayatollah Muhammad Ali Taskhiri, Secretary General of the Forum for the Rapprochement of Islamic Schools in the world, one of the 38 leaders, signatories of the open letter to the Pope, in response to the lectio magistralis of Regensburg

Interview with Muhammad Ali Taskhiri by Pierluca Azzaro

Muhammad Ali Taskhiri

Muhammad Ali Taskhiri

«The Iranian Ayatollah Taskhiri is one of the most authoritative spiritual leaders of the Shiite world community». Thus Islamic Magazine, the magazine that on 12 October last published the open letter to the Pope signed by 38 Muslim leaders, introduced to its readers one of the most important signatories of that document aimed at responding in an ample and detailed manner to the lecture given at the University of Regensburg by Benedict XVI. It is without doubt a consoling fact that, after the war in Lebanon and in these first days of November in the Middle East, soaked in innocent blood, that it is Taskhiri himself who presides over an important summit of Shiite Muslim religious representatives taking place in Beirut. A brief look at his curriculum explains why: for years head of the influential Organization of Islamic Culture and Communication – a Shiite Islamic missionary organization entrusted with spreading the religion throughout the world – today, thanks to the great theological knowledge he is unanimously recognized to have, the Ayatollah Taskhiri is Secretary General of the World Forum For the Rapprochement Of Islamic Schools Of Thought, an institution committed to bringing the various schools of Islamic doctrine in the world closer together. On 3 July last, Taskhiri represented Shiite Islam at the world summit of religious representatives in Moscow. In Rhodes, from the end of September to early October, it is he again who speaks in the name of Islam at the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilization”, an organization founded four years ago by Vladimir Yakunin – today head of the railway network of the Russian Federation – which aims at promoting dialogue between cultures understood principally as a dialogue between religions. After listening intentively to the speech of the Russian Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Berel Lazar – also present on the platform was the Russian-Orthodox Metropolitan Vladimir –, at the opening conference of the Forum, Taskhiri delivered his impromptu speech to a large and highly qualified audience, without ever raising his voice, and yet becoming animated when the speech touched on a subject particularly dear to him: justice, a subject to which he has devoted numerous publications. Personal encounter revealed a cheerfulness of mind, humanity and ancient wisdom in the elderly leader very far removed from the images of the Middle Eastern “politico-religious leaders” – that the media offer these days to their readers and viewers.

Ayatollah Taskhiri, in your speech at the Inaugural Conference of the Rhodes meeting you returned to the question of the famous passage of the Pope’s discourse in Regensburg. Could you sum up your position for us once again?
MUHAMMAD ALI TASKHIRI: Yes, I simply said that my criticism is that Benedict XVI should have commented briefly, even impromptu, on the passage; just as he then did at the prayer of the Angelus, in Castel Gandolfo. Muslims didn’t immediately understand that the opinion of the emperor was not that of the Pope. If the words of the Byzantine emperor are understood to mean that Islam is entirely “war and violence”, this is not a true exposition of Islam and of its mission. It is this interpretation of Islam, this stereotype, that hurt the Muslim people. Additionally, Manuel II Paleologus affirms that Islam doesn’t have anything to do with wisdom and reason: it is not true. Islam is steeped in learning and reason. As I said, the Pope then commented on the passage, saying that it doesn’t match his own thinking.
You speak of “the golden mean” as the path for dialogue to take. Could you clarify this thought of yours?
TASKHIRI: There are some things that separate the human being from the animal: thought, conversation, reason, the making of choices based on reason, dialogue. And then the acceptance of certain ethical principles: justice, morality, compassion. In a very pragmatic way I would say that the path to set out on for peaceful and harmonious coexistence among human beings is to apply these principles and along with them the maxim: «Live and let live». That is the right path to follow, the true path. But there is also a way of falsehood which is that of extremism, conflict, violence. I will give some examples of this: Nazism, Fascism, Apartheid are deviations from the way of justice. Zionism is also an abandoning of the way of justice.
Benedict XVI during the audience with the ambassadors of Islamic majority countries accredited to the Holy See, 
25 September 2006 at Castel Gandolfo

Benedict XVI during the audience with the ambassadors of Islamic majority countries accredited to the Holy See, 25 September 2006 at Castel Gandolfo

What do you mean by justice? In Rhodes you invoked it insistently…
TASKHIRI: Justice must be enduring, and everything that doesn’t respect justice and human dignity must be rejected because it is in contrast with authentic human values. Peace, truth, sincerity, dedicating one’s own efforts to just causes, helping the suffering and the needy, these are examples of justice and of love of justice. If one operates against justice the world suffers and will continue to suffer. But justice has two aspects. The first concerns what our conscience rejects, what makes us feel guilty when we do something evil: killing women, children and helpless people is wrong, our conscience tells us; helping women and children is justice; supporting the weak is justice; taking care of the more fundamental human needs is justice: assuring food and water, which are gifts of God, and then a home and freedom. If these needs are not met, then one operates unjustly. The second aspect of justice has to do with events in our life or happenings in general that we don’t grasp as just. For these last we must turn to God, cry out to Him, Who is the source of justice, and pray Him to make us understand why this or that event may be just.
You often speak also of a golden mean between unbridled capitalism and socialism. What do you mean?
TASKHIRI: I am a Muslim and according to my religion there is, without doubt, freedom of enterprise, of doing business; but there is also, at the same time, the need to satisfy the basic human needs of people, such as home and work. The socialism that we have known wanted to assure these goods to all, refusing freedom. Islam tries to give freedom of enterprise but wants people to be assured that their most elementary needs will be met. I am sure that all the monotheistic religions have precise recommendations to make on the matter.
Yet, looking around today, the picture seems very bleak. The Pope spoke in Regensburg of a wealthy and technically advanced West permeated, however, by «a type of reason that excludes God totally from the vision of man»; and that it is this aspect of the West that frightens the people of Asia. Do you agree with his words?
TASKHIRI: One hundred per cent. In our epoch of consumerism and of unbridled capitalism many are so in love with themselves that they refuse God and despise Him. This is the tragedy of our time.
A last question: Your Excellency, how do you see the future and what do you expect from the future?
TASKHIRI: I am a Muslim, I come from Iran and I read the Koran every day. The Koran is a book of inspiration and of hope for the future. I believe that, one day, the Imam Mahdi and Jesus of Nazareth will come into this world and spread love, compassion and justice. Because of this I am confident about the future.

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